China's lights, cameras, action

By Rod Pascoe

A $410m town created to promote all things cinematic impresses Rod Pascoe.
Movie Town in Mission Hills, Haikou. Photo / Rod Pascoe
Movie Town in Mission Hills, Haikou. Photo / Rod Pascoe

With a population fast approaching 1.4 billion, it's no surprise that China has a movie industry that challenges Hollywood and India's Bollywood for the top ranking in world cinema.

In 2015, Chinese fans shelled out nearly $NZ10 billion to go to the movies, and almost two-thirds of that was spent on tickets to the hundreds of local films produced each year.

On Hainan Island, China's only tropical province, famous director Feng Xiaogang has spearheaded the development of the $US300 million ($NZ410m) Mission Hills Movie Town project to further whet the fans' appetite for all things cinematic.

Spread over more than 550ha, it features replica streetscapes from old Chongqing, Nanyang and Beijing that are familiar to movie buffs, including 91 buildings from the Republican era of Chiang Kai-shek. The precision in the detailing is pretty impressive.

Some of the Chinese in the group I was with got quite a thrill out of seeing scenes familiar to them from Feng's 2012 movie Back to 1942, which included Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins among its stars and was about the devastation and misery caused by famine during the second Sino-Japanese War.

Our guide for the visit, Frank Liang, said the idea behind Movie Town was not only to promote the local cinema industry but also to protect and showcase some of the culture of Old China.

One the day we visited, the people's republic was celebrating its annual Dragon Boat Festival.

Although on such special holidays crowd numbers at Movie Town can top 20,000, the attendance was much smaller than that, so I was able to get a prime position to watch an entertainment spectacular, in front of the gates to old Chongqing, re-enacting some of the events of 1942. This being China, there were political digs aplenty - against wealthy landowners and the brutal oppressors who brutalised the inhabitants of cities such as Nanking, and glorifying the communist liberators. But it was all very impressive - even if having to stand in the heat of a Hainan summer for an hour proved a tad draining.

Not so impressive was the souvenir shop. Its front window promoted mementos of Kuala Lumpur, Paris, Egypt, Morocco and other tourist hotspots. Someone forgot to remind the operators that their store was in China. The sight of hookah pipes on the shelves certainly raised a chuckle.

Movie Town, which also has production film studios, is part of the huge Mission Hills tourism and hospitality precinct, spread over 23sq km near Hainan's provincial capital, Haikou. The development includes the ultra-luxury Mission Hills hotel, where I stayed and was able to walk in the footsteps of some of the most famous names in sport and entertainment.

There are reminders everywhere that this is primarily a huge golf resort on a scale to match, and possibly exceed, the biggest in the world. The passageway to the lifts is lined with photos of famous faces who have played in the hotel's celebrity proam tournaments: people such as Tiger Woods, Hugh Grant, Morgan Freeman, Ronaldo and a host of Chinese actors and entertainers.

But it's on the walk out to the lavish golf centre that you really realise how many top names have visited here. Pedestals on the long Aisle of Stars carry the handprints and signatures of Gary Player, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Colin Montgomerie, Rory McIlroy, Nick Faldo, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman, Bubba Watson and many other top players, who've rubbed shoulders here with movie stars such as Catherine Zeta-Jones, Adrien Brody, Christian Slater, Andy Garcia, Jessica Alba and Matthew McConaughey, as well as sports celebs such as Yao Ming and Michael Phelps. I'm no sports fanatic, but I was impressed.

The Chinese operators, in their own sweet way, say they have made golfing affordable for the public. The cheapest of the 10 golf courses costs ¥500 (about $104) a round. The most expensive is the No 1, internationalstandard course. If you want to tackle its 18 holes, be ready to fork out ¥2000 to ¥3000 ($420-$630).

Mission Hills, like the whole of the Haikou region, is situated in a volcanic zone that feeds the spas for which the hotel is also famous. It is recognised by Guinness World Records as the largest spa resort on the planet.

If you feel like it's high time you were pampered, you could indulge in a 60-minute lava shell massage for ¥1100 ($230) or have an hour-long deluxe face-care session for ¥1200 ($250). I've worked too hard for my money to part with it that quickly, so I soaked in a spa with a name that reminded me of home - the Maori pool, a tilt to New Zealand's global reputation as a geothermal centre of excellence.

- Spy.co.nz

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